Jazz Stories at Massey Hall

Jazz at Massey Hall – The Quintet – The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever

At Massey Hall it’s difficult to drop the word ‘jazz’ without referring to a particular night in Massey Hall history: May 15, 1953, the night of what’s come to be known – and, occasionally, the name under which the recording of that night has been released – The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.

The Quintet, as the band became known, comprised five of jazz’s top talents, gathered for the first and only time: Charlie “Bird” Parker (sax), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums). This legendary concert has, in the decades since, done much to remind us that you can’t spell “history” without “story.” As any musician, crew member, venue-staffer or critic can attest, behind every great show – heck, behind every not great show – there are a million stories. So it’s not surprising that the Greatest show has more than its fair share, and 63 years on, it’s hard to tell the actual from the apocryphal.Let’s start with the name: Was it a Great – let alone, the Greatest – show? General consensus, today, is: Absolutely. But at the time, there was a substantial portion of the jazz-loving public that wasn’t interested in the still-new sound that the five players had only recently created. Bebop, some called it; new jazz, said others. Some folks just called it noise – haters, as the lady said, gonna hate.

There were at least two lukewarm reviews of the concert. The Globe and Mail’s arts critic, Alex Barris, was clearly nonplussed: “All in all, it was neither a great concert nor a bad one.” Barris, according to Don Brown, who attended the concert and worked for CBC, “had a complete change of heart” by the time the two men gathered for the CBC’s 30th-anniversary commemoration. Robert Fulford is also said to have written a negative review.

We know that the crowd was small, and there are a couple of oft-cited reasons for that: An advertising campaign that depended more on word of mouth than on ads, and the Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight in Chicago. For a large chunk of the city – and at least one of the Quintet members – the live broadcast of the fight was a much more important event. It’s hard to imagine that the Quintet was anything other than the ultimate ready-made performance package. But you might say that improvisation was key both onstage and behind the scenes: Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford were initially invited to play piano and bass, respectively. Tristano declined, suggesting Powell, who had recently emerged from hospitalization for mental-health treatment. Roach told organizers that Pettiford had broken his arm and suggested Mingus instead. Pettiford’s injury, it seems, had happened several years prior, so Roach appears to have had other plans.

Lucky for us, though: Mingus is the one who brought the brand-new high-end tape upon which the concert was recorded – and, later, over which Mingus re-recorded parts prior to the album’s release. (It’s unclear whether those overdubs were the result of the house sound tech (described as “jazz-hating”) leaving his post. Upon settling on a lineup, it was something of a miracle that the event got started. Mingus biographer Krin Gabbard somewhat-diplomatically labelled the participants as “shall we say, temperamental.” And they proved that the question “How do you get to Massey Hall?” has several possible answers.

In a twist that seems made for the history books, as the legend goes, Bird is said to have missed a flight, delaying the start time. Intermission was late to end as Parker and Gillespie dallied across the street at the Silver Rail sipping Scotch – Roach helped appease the crowd with an extended solo. Gillespie was more interested in the fight than the show, running backstage to get updates. Powell appeared to be in rough shape: Birdland owner Oscar Goodman had to help him to the piano. The players weren’t paid what they were promised: Gillespie likened the cheque he got to a rubber ball. Mingus made out best, snagging the recording as his payment.

One concert-goer may have put it best when they described the players as being in “pretty mysterious shape.” Of course, it’s hard to overstate the role of mystery in performances of any kind. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the challenges and adventures of the overall endeavour, that historic evening lives on: The recording remains an inarguably influential album that informs not only the history and trajectory of jazz music, but of the work that we do here, at the Hall where it all went down. We take very seriously our role in continuing to showcase and support all that’s come as a result.

At a 50th anniversary celebration of that amazing evening a quintet comprised of Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove, Dave Holland and Kenny Garrett channeled the energy of that 1953 night. 79-year-old Max Roach, the sole surviving member of the original Quintet, observed that his bandmates remained in the Hall.

Hancock had a similar reaction. “I knew deeply about Massey Hall,” he said, because he knew Jazz at Massey Hall. The record, he continued, “was so inspiring to so many musicians for so many decades that when I walked on the stage it was like a kind of spiritual reaction occurred in me, as though the spirit of that energy from that concert was still here.”